|The Kohanim, the nation’s priests, were responsible for the sacrificial rites in the sanctuary and, later on, service in the Temple. With these duties came certain restrictions. The Kohanim were restricted in whom they could marry and for whom they were allowed to become ritually impure through contact with the dead:
And the Lord said to Moshe, ‘Say to the priests, the sons of Aharon, and say to them, ‘For no dead person among his kin shall he be defiled, except for his own flesh which is close to him, for his mother and for his father his son and for his daughter and for his brother and for his virgin sister who is close to him, as she has not become a man’s, for her he may become defiled. (Leviticus 21:1-3)
The Talmud records the following story about a kohen whose wife died on the eve of Pesah as he was preparing to offer the Pesah sacrifice:
For her he may become defiled: this is obligatory; if he does not wish to, we defile him by force. Now, the wife of Joseph the priest happened to die on the eve of Passover, and he did not wish to defile himself, whereupon his brother priests took a vote and defiled him by force. (Zevahim 100a)
This story and the accompanying talmudic discussion indicate a struggle over conflicting priorities, in this case, between the obligation to offer the Pesah sacrifice and the obligation for the priest to bury his wife. The upshot of this story is that the rabbinic tradition understood tk’vod habriyot (human dignity) as a primary value..
The restrictions on the Kohen Hagadol – the High Priest regarding mourning were even more stringent than those imposed on regular priests. He was not permitted to actively participate in mourning or burial for even those from his immediate family:
And the priest exalted over his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been installed to wear the garments, shall not dishevel his hair nor rip his garments. And near any dead person he shall not come in, for his father and for his mother he shall not be defiled (tamei). And from the sanctuary he shall not go out, and he shall not profane the sanctuary of God. (Leviticus 21:11-12)
The High Priest was to refrain from all public mourning and to guard against becoming ritually impure, for the sake of his own dignity, the holiness of his position and for God’s honor. (See the debate over the extent of this prohibition – Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:1) Was this restriction absolute? The answer to this question is found in a midrash from the period of the Mishnah:
For his father and for his mother he may not be tamei: (but) he does make himself tamei for a met mitzvah (a dead body without anyone else to bury it). (Sifra Emor, Parshata 2,4)
This teaching establishes that while the High Priest cannot attend to the burial of even his closest relatives, nevertheless he must involve himself in ensuring the proper burial of someone for whom there is no one else to bury them. The Talmud makes this point in a discussion on the subject of human dignity (k’vod habriyot). The case discussed here involves whether a nazir who has made a vow which includes not coming into contact with the dead (including family members – marking him or her with a vow much like the obligations of the High Priest) must involve himself in burying a met mitzvah:
Come and hear: ‘Or for his sister.’ (Numbers 6:6) What does this teach us [since this phrase is seemingly superfluous]? Suppose he (the nazir) was going to slaughter his Pesah lamb or to circumcise his son (on the eighth day), and he heard that a near relative of his had died, am I to say that he should go back and defile himself [for the dead relative]? You should say, he should not defile himself [on account of his obligations as a nazir]. Shall I say that just as he does not defile himself for them, so too, he should not defile himself for a met mitzvah? It therefore states: ‘Or for his sister’: for his sister he does not defile himself, Shall I say that just as he does not defile himself for them, so he should not defile himself for a met mitzvah? Scripture therefore says: ‘And for his sister’: [We read narrowly.] – for his sister he does not defile himself [but continues to perform the Pesah sacrifice or the circumcision], but he does defile himself for a met mitzvah. But why should this be? Let us apply the rule, ‘There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the Lord (Proverbs 21:30)? [This verse challenges the idea that caring for the met mitzvah should override performing the sacrifice or the circumcision which are divine commandments] — The case [of the met mitzvah] is different, because it is written, ‘And for his sister’.[excluding the met mitzvah] (adapted from Berachot 19b-20a)
The upshot of this Talmudic discussion is that there are circumstances where human dignity supersedes both the dignity of high office and even God’s honor. The High Priest must abdicate these priorities in order to ensure the dignity of one whose fate has robbed him of a dignified death.
This Talmudic study should remind us that no matter our status, we must see as a religious imperative an obligation to provide others with the dignity that they deserve as God’s creations.